In the GOP primary, one thing sells (merch) above all else: owning the libraries

The mesh trucker caps, “Bud Right” koozies and “Abolish the FBI” signs that Republican presidential candidates are feverishly peddling are, on the surface, all meant to amass enough small donors to qualify for the first debate.

But there’s something else telling about the candidates’ red meat emporiums. In the modern GOP, owning the libraries is what sells.

“Forty years ago it would have been ‘Free Ukraine,’ next to the image of Reagan,” said Rob Stutzman, a Republican strategist. “Freedom and freedom for all is not… the incentive structure of our politics, unfortunately.”

In today’s merchandising arms race, it’s not the economy, stupid. It’s Ron DeSantis’ $37.47 “Build the Wall” trucker hat, Nikki Haley’s “Strong & Proud, Not Weak & Woke” t-shirt, or a Perry Johnson “I identify as non-Bidenary” sticker.

Once the “party of new ideas”, the culture war are the new deck, not just a board.

“We’re kind of anti-revivalism,” said Johnson, the businessman and longtime Michigan presidential candidate who sells a mug with the promise to “keep kids away from socialism.” “Actually, I think the whole party is pretty much anti-revival.”

It’s not hard to see why Republicans emphasize cultural issues — not Reagan’s image — in their sales. They follow the lead of a more recent president who seven years ago made his red MAGA hat a ubiquitous symbol of the right. Whole cabinets materialized in tribute to her Hillary Clinton-inspired chants of “Lock her up!”

Then, following its defeat in 2020, the GOP was reduced to its status as an opposition party, with the branding coming to match. Trump, the twice-indicted former president with a third investigation looming, is selling “not guilty” shirts and mugs, while other Republicans must capitalize on other perceived offenses from the left.

Vivek Ramaswamy, the biotech entrepreneur, pushes T-shirts and coffee mugs with the words “transgender”, “climatism” and “awakenism” crossed out. And in the age of Barstool politics, you can buy a “Biden, one term…everyone knows the rules” sticker — a play on macho comedy editor Barstool’s popular pizza review series — for $12, courtesy of Camp DeSantis. Or an “I’m with Tucker” hat from Johnson.

Trump’s rivals won’t replace Trump’s appeal to small donors with a koozie or smart pin. The former president is the king of small-dollar fundraising in the GOP, as he proved again in the second fundraising quarter of the year.

As Stutzman put it, “those little red hats wouldn’t have meant anything without Trump,” and no one in the field has demonstrated that they “can be the same kind of brand that really creates a passionate movement.”

But it is imperative that Trump’s opponents at least penetrate the market with small donors. They need at least 40,000 unique donors to qualify for the first debate.

The Donor Threshold has been the source of an explosion of fundraising gimmicks in recent weeks. North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum’s presidential campaign offered donors a $20 gift card for a $1 donation, while the super PAC supporting Miami Mayor Francis Suarez’s campaign promised a chance to win a year’s tuition for a donation of the same tiny amount.

Like these fundraising programs, campaign merchandise is generally not lucrative. Nor is it likely to explain the large swings in voter support. And many Republicans offer more traditional gear. Former Vice President Mike Pence has taken a page from Eisenhower’s playbook with “I love Mike” hoodies, T-shirts and hats, while South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, who presents himself as a cheerful, baggage-free alternative to Trump, peddles “opTIMism” T-shirts.

“What they’re selling is very telling because it’s aimed at a certain audience,” said Mike Madrid, a Republican strategist and co-founder of the anti-Trump Lincoln Project. “You don’t win anyone over with a bobblehead…but what you want is for your most perfect support groups to feel engaged in the campaign, be a part of it, and show their support in some way.”

Or their disdain — which is why candidates turn the things today’s GOP loves to hate into portable symbols of support.

There’s always a chance, after all, that something like Trump’s new “Crooked Joe” swag or DeSantis’ “Joe Biden makes me cry” onesie will go viral.

“They have to think what makes someone in Alaska laugh about this thing, I have to have this koozie,” said Dave Carney, a New Hampshire-based GOP strategist. “They might not give someone $25, but maybe they give $25 to get a cool hat or a cool t-shirt or some clever political memorabilia.”

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